Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, May, 2004
Hubbard Hall has once again brought an exciting, thought provoking world premiere musical to Washington County and given it a goreous and professional production. While not yet perfect, this musical version of Leonid Andreyev’s 1915 melodramatic tragedy He Who Gets Slapped is well worth seeing in this inaugural outing.
Andreyev (1871-1919) was a prolific writer in his native Russia between the two revolutions in that country in 1905 and 1917, churning out fiction and drama. He Who Gets Slapped found success in New York City in a 1922 Theatre Guild production which toured the country. In 1924 MGM released a silent film of the play starring Lon Chaney. In the 1950’s Robert Ward created an operatic version presented by the New York City Opera.
All of the above refers to Andreyev’s original and its English translations. What is on the stage at Hubbard Hall is a brand new musical version, with a book and lyrics by Ray Sipherd (based on the translation by Lewis Roberts and Olga Andreyev Carlisle) and music by Arthur B. Rubinstein. As with all adaptations, and this is an adaptation of a translation to boot, there are significant differences between Andreyev’s play and Sipherd’s book - enough that I question why the original title was retained. This show is not, actually, He Who Gets Slapped.
There are certainly many tragic musicals out there, but this is such a lugubrious Russian drama that it seems an odd choice to make in to a musical. Rubinstein has striven to give the music Russian undertones, which means that it is no more jolly than the book. And it is not, to lean on a tired cliché, hummable. I did not come out of the theatre with one tune stuck in my head.
What I did come away with, as I always do from a Hubbard Hall production, were strong visual images. Kevin McGuire, who is both the Artistic Director of the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall and the director of the production where he appears as Papa Briquet, always comes up with inventive ways to use the space in the 1894 opera house. In this case the slightly shabby period style of the space lends itself well to being transformed into a slightly shabby early 20th century circus. While it is impossible that a full circus with tigers and tightropes and trapezes could ever have performed in Hubbard Hall, there certainly vaudeville shows with animal acts and acrobats that did. The lighting is even kept on the dim side, as it would have been when gas fixtures and lanterns were the only available light.
Karen Koziol, who bills herself as an assemblage artist, has designed the sets, costumes and props. Her masterpiece is a large empty oval frame, which functions as a mirror and a doorway during the course of the show. The frame is covered in a glittering array of “found objects” which make a perfect metaphor for the odd assemblage of circus performers in Briquet’s Cirque de Paris. For this show the audience is seated on the stage of the old opera house, with a few rows also on the sides of the circus ring on the floor. The balcony and its underpinnings are used as playing space, allowing performers to observe from above. Although no real circus acts are performed, the roof of Hubbard Hall is strung with a maze of ropes and riggings for trapeze and tightropes. A trio of clowns Jackson (Brian Foley), Tilly (Josh Gray), and Polly (Charlotte Pines) roam the audience before the show and during intermission.
Into the circus comes a mysterious man known only as He (Kirk Mouser). He sells himself to Briquet (McGuire) as a clown who insults people until he gets slapped – sort of a Don Rickles who gets what’s coming to him. He is billed as He, Who Gets Slapped. Consuelo (Mariah Sanford-White) and Bezano (Adam Jansson) are a team of young tightrope artists playing at falling in love. Bezano is also romantically involved with the tiger tamer Zinida (Sandra Bargman), Briquet’s wife. An imperious wealthy man, Monsieur Reynard (Dan Sharkey) is considering buying the circus from Briquet, primarily to buy Consuelo for himself. Beverly Own, Patrick Doyle, Liz Caspari, and Ciara Carrino round out the cast as members of the Circus.
In flashbacks we learn that Reynard and He were once business partners and that Reynard cheated He out of both his fortune and his wife (Katie-Ann McDermott). Needless to say, He has it in for Reynard. In the course of the show He also falls for Consuelo (I think, this is badly delineated in Sipherd’s book) and she falls desperately in love with Bezano. Jealous, Reynard has Bezano fired once he buys the circus, and only tragedy can resolve the conflict and reunite Consuelo and Bezano in the end.
Several of the cast members have impressive New York credits to their name, and they sing and act beautifully. I could not decide if the performers were body miked, but I think they weren’t. It is a real treat to hear fine trained voices unfiltered by electronic clutter. Mouser and Sharkey are particularly impressive singers.
Other cast members have real circus training, and Alla Youdina is credited with providing Circus Choreography. The look of the show is both professional and authentic. Amateur or professional, there is not a weak link in the cast. I enjoyed seeing Gray and Pines on the Hubbard Hall stage again. They are talented local teens and I hope to see more of them soon.
I know that this show is undergoing changes to book and music as I write this. It is possible that Sipherd and Rubinstein will be able to tighten up the book, lyrics and music to make this a show that really works and is able to go on to a life beyond Hubbard Hall. But even if this is as far as it goes it is certainly well worth seeing. It is exciting that Hubbard Hall takes these risks and presents local audiences with a chance to see new works in progress.
The Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall’s production of He Who Gets Slapped runs through May 30. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for children 12 and up. Call the box office at 518-677-2495 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004